Blogs

‘Once upon a time in Afghanistan’

Larry Ryan

A hit tip to David Plotz and Slate.com’s excellent Political Gabfest podcast for calling attention to a fascinating photo essay on Foreign Policy magazine’s website.

Labelled “Once Upon a Time in Afghanistan… Record stores, Mad Men furniture,51953148 300x241 Once upon a time in Afghanistan and pencil skirts — when Kabul had rock ‘n’ roll, not rockets,” the essay was put together by Mohammad Qayoumi, current president of California State University, East Bay, who has worked on reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan in several advisory roles since 2002.

When arguments are made over the war in Afghanistan people are often quick to assert that it is a failed state, locked in a medieval mindset; it’s always been a mess and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Qayoumi, in his introduction, quotes Liam Fox recently describing it a “broken 13th century country”, while Backwater’s former CEO said it was inhabited by “barbarians” with “a 1200 A.D. mentality”. People tend to nod along with such statements, but Qayoumi, who grew up in Kabul in the 50s, leaving the country in 1968, thought such descriptions didn’t tally with his own memories of the place.

Decades of war have devastated the country, but it wasn’t always so.

He sought out an old photo book published by Afghanistan’s planning ministry in the 60s, with images mainly dating from the 50s. He has put together a selction of the pictures from the book with commentary for Foreign Policy. What you see doesn’t seem hugely distant from any western country at the time: students at university, nurses and hospitals, factories, modernist furniture, record shops, outfits that wouldn’t be out of place on Mad Men, kids taking part in Scout meetings…

Whether for or against Nato’s continued engagement in Afghanistan, I think Qayoumi makes a good point in disavowing a certain fatalism that seems to effect people involved with the country, Afghanis themselves and outsiders; a sense that the place is doomed to failure and barbarism.

“It is important to know that disorder, terrorism, and violence against schools that educate girls are not inevitable,” he says. “I want to show Afghanistan’s youth of today how their parents and grandparents really lived.”

These photos offer a tantalising glimpse. Click here to see more.

(Picture taken in 1962 at the Faculty of Medecine in Kabul of two Afghan medicine students (Left and Center) listening to their Professor as they examine a plaster showing a part of a human body. AFP/Getty Images)

Tagged in: , , ,
  • Pingback: Our link colours: Help us decide | Jack Riley | Independent Notebook Blogs

  • conan_drum

    It is little wonder that defeatism and negativity is so common. 99 percent of the stories in the press are negative. I am really tired iof the refrain that Alexander, the British and the Russians could not ‘tame’ Afghanistan so we shouild leave them to their fate. The question is never put, do the Afggan’s want that fate? I think most Afghans know very well what that would be as we all saw a dress rehearsal of it in Swat

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000191435465 Akos Horvath

    What is not mentioned, of course, is that these images date before the US started to arm the most backward elements of the Afghan society, all in the name of fighting the Soviets. Funny how context is not given here. The people who proclaim to care most about the Afghans today are more or less the same ones who were funding Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and co a few decades back. Such minor details were also left out of the Hollywood propaganda job called Charlie Wilson’s War.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000191435465 Akos Horvath

    What is not mentioned, of course, is that these images date before the US started to arm the most backward elements of the Afghan society, all in the name of fighting the Soviets. Funny how context is not given here. The people who proclaim to care most about the Afghans today are more or less the same ones who were funding Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and co a few decades back. Such minor details were also left out of the Hollywood propaganda job called Charlie Wilson's War.


Most viewed

Property search
Browse by area

Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter